The Terror, by Arthur Machen

Chapter 6

Mr. Remnant’s Z Ray

Dr. Lewis was kept some time at the Garth. It was past twelve when he got back to his house.

He went quickly to the room that overlooked the garden and the sea and threw open the French window and peered into the darkness. There, dim indeed against the dim sky but unmistakable, was the tall pine with its sparse branches, high above the dense growth of the ilex trees. The strange boughs which had amazed him had vanished; there was no appearance now of colors or of fires.

He drew his chair up to the open window and sat there gazing and wondering far into the night, till brightness came upon the sea and sky, and the forms of the trees in the garden grew clear and evident. He went up to his bed at last filled with a great perplexity, still asking questions to which there was no answer.

The doctor did not say anything about the strange tree to Remnant. When they next met, Lewis said that he had thought there was a man hiding amongst the bushes — this in explanation of that warning gesture he had used, and of his going out into the garden and staring into the night. He concealed the truth because he dreaded the Remnant doctrine that would undoubtedly be produced; indeed, he hoped that he had heard the last of the theory of the Z Ray. But Remnant firmly reopened this subject.

“We were interrupted just as I was putting my case to you,” he said. “And to sum it all up, it amounts to this: that the Huns have made one of the great leaps of science. They are sending ‘suggestions’ (which amount to irresistible commands) over here, and the persons affected are seized with suicidal or homicidal mania. The people who were killed by falling over the cliffs or into the quarry probably committed suicide; and so with the man and boy who were found in the bog. As to the Highway case, you remember that Thomas Evans said that he stopped and talked to Williams on the night of the murder. In my opinion Evans was the murderer. He came under the influence of the Ray, became a homicidal maniac in an instant, snatched Williams’s spade from his hand and killed him and the others.”

“The bodies were found by me on the road.”

“It is possible that the first impact of the Ray produces violent nervous excitement, which would manifest itself externally. Williams might have called to his wife to come and see what was the matter with Evans. The children would naturally follow their mother. It seems to me simple. And as for the animals — the horses, dogs, and so forth, they as I say, were no doubt panic stricken by the Ray, and hence driven to frenzy.”

“Why should Evans have murdered Williams instead of Williams murdering Evans? Why should the impact of the Ray affect one and not the other?”

“Why does one man react violently to a certain drug, while it makes no impression on another man? Why is A able to drink a bottle of whisky and remain sober, while B is turned into something very like a lunatic after he has drunk three glasses?”

“It is a question of idiosyncrasy,” said the doctor.

“Is idiosyncrasy Greek for ‘I don’t know’?” asked Remnant.

“Not at all,” said Lewis, smiling blandly. “I mean that in some diatheses whisky — as you have mentioned whisky — appears not to be pathogenic, or at all events not immediately pathogenic. In other cases, as you very justly observed, there seems to be a very marked cachexia associated with the exhibition of the spirit in question, even in comparatively small doses.”

Under this cloud of professional verbiage Lewis escaped from the Club and from Remnant. He did not want to hear any more about that Dreadful Ray, because he felt sure that the Ray was all nonsense. But asking himself why he felt this certitude in the matter he had to confess that he didn’t know. An aeroplane, he reflected, was all nonsense before it was made; and he remembered talking in the early nineties to a friend of his about the newly discovered X Rays. The friend laughed incredulously, evidently didn’t believe a word of it, till Lewis told him that there was an article on the subject in the current number of the Saturday Review; whereupon the unbeliever said, “Oh, is that so? Oh, really. I see,” and was converted on the X Ray faith on the spot. Lewis, remembering this talk, marveled at the strange processes of the human mind, its illogical and yet all-compelling ergos, and wondered whether he himself was only waiting for an article on the Z Ray in the Saturday Review to become a devout believer in the doctrine of Remnant.

But he wondered with far more fervor as to the extraordinary thing he had seen in his own garden with his own eyes. The tree that changed all its shape for an hour or two of the night, the growth of strange boughs, the apparition of secret fires among them, the sparkling of emerald and ruby lights: how could one fail to be afraid with great amazement at the thought of such a mystery?

Dr. Lewis’s thoughts were distracted from the incredible adventure of the tree by the visit of his sister and her husband. Mr. and Mrs. Merritt lived in a well-known manufacturing town of the Midlands, which was now, of course, a center of munition work. On the day of their arrival at Porth, Mrs. Merritt, who was tired after the long, hot journey, went to bed early, and Merritt and Lewis went into the room by the garden for their talk and tobacco. They spoke of the year that had passed since their last meeting, of the weary dragging of the war, of friends that had perished in it, of the hopelessness of an early ending of all this misery. Lewis said nothing of the terror that was on the land. One does not greet a tired man who is come to a quiet, sunny place for relief from black smoke and work and worry with a tale of horror. Indeed, the doctor saw that his brother-in-law looked far from well. And he seemed “jumpy”; there was an occasional twitch of his mouth that Lewis did not like at all.

“Well,” said the doctor, after an interval of silence and port wine, “I am glad to see you here again. Porth always suits you. I don’t think you’re looking quite up to your usual form. But three weeks of Meirion air will do wonders.”

“Well, I hope it will,” said the other. “I am not up to the mark. Things are not going well at Midlingham.”

“Business is all right, isn’t it?”

“Yes. Business is all right. But there are other things that are all wrong. We are living under a reign of terror. It comes to that.”

“What on earth do you mean?”

“Well, I suppose I may tell you what I know. It’s not much. I didn’t dare write it. But do you know that at every one of the munition works in Midlingham and all about it there’s a guard of soldiers with drawn bayonets and loaded rifles day and night? Men with bombs, too. And machine-guns at the big factories.”

“German spies?”

“You don’t want Lewis guns to fight spies with. Nor bombs. Nor a platoon of men. I woke up last night. It was the machine-gun at Benington’s Army Motor Works. Firing like fury. And then bang! bang! bang! That was the hand bombs.”

“But what against?”

“Nobody knows.”

“Nobody knows what is happening,” Merritt repeated, and he went on to describe the bewilderment and terror that hung like a cloud over the great industrial city in the Midlands, how the feeling of concealment, of some intolerable secret danger that must not be named, was worst of all.

“A young fellow I know,” he said, “was on short leave the other day from the front, and he spent it with his people at Belmont — that’s about four miles out of Midlingham, you know. ‘Thank God,’ he said to me, ‘I am going back to-morrow. It’s no good saying that the Wipers salient is nice, because it isn’t. But it’s a damned sight better than this. At the front you know what you’re up against anyhow.’ At Midlingham everybody has the feeling that we’re up against something awful and we don’t know what; it’s that that makes people inclined to whisper. There’s terror in the air.”

Merritt made a sort of picture of the great town cowering in its fear of an unknown danger.

“People are afraid to go about alone at nights in the outskirts. They make up parties at the stations to go home together if it’s anything like dark, or if there are any lonely bits on their way.”

“But why? I don’t understand. What are they afraid of?”

“Well, I told you about my being awakened up the other night with the machine-guns at the motor works rattling away, and the bombs exploding and making the most terrible noise. That sort of thing alarms one, you know. It’s only natural.”

“Indeed, it must be very terrifying. You mean, then, there is a general nervousness about, a vague sort of apprehension that makes people inclined to herd together?”

“There’s that, and there’s more. People have gone out that have never come back. There were a couple of men in the train to Holme, arguing about the quickest way to get to Northend, a sort of outlying part of Holme where they both lived. They argued all the way out of Midlingham, one saying that the high road was the quickest though it was the longest way. ‘It’s the quickest going because it’s the cleanest going,’ he said.”

“The other chap fancied a short cut across the fields, by the canal. ‘It’s half the distance,’ he kept on. ‘Yes, if you don’t lose your way,’ said the other. Well, it appears they put an even half-crown on it, and each was to try his own way when they got out of the train. It was arranged that they were to meet at the ‘Wagon’ in Northend. ‘I shall be at the “Wagon” first,’ said the man who believed in the short cut, and with that he climbed over the stile and made off across the fields. It wasn’t late enough to be really dark, and a lot of them thought he might win the stakes. But he never turned up at the Wagon — or anywhere else for the matter of that.”

“What happened to him?”

“He was found lying on his back in the middle of a field — some way from the path. He was dead. The doctors said he’d-been suffocated. Nobody knows how. Then there have been other cases. We whisper about them at Midlingham, but we’re afraid to speak out.”

Lewis was ruminating all this profoundly. Terror in Meirion and terror far away in the heart of England; but at Midlingham, so far as he could gather from these stories of soldiers on guard, of crackling machine-guns, it was a case of an organized attack on the munitioning of the army. He felt that he did not know enough to warrant his deciding that the terror of Meirion and of Stratfordshire were one.

Then Merritt began again:

“There’s a queer story going about, when the door’s shut and the curtain’s drawn, that is, as to a place right out in the country over the other side of Midlingham; on the opposite side to Dunwich. They’ve built one of the new factories out there, a great red brick town of sheds they tell me it is, with a tremendous chimney. It’s not been finished more than a month or six weeks. They plumped it down right in the middle of the fields, by the line, and they’re building huts for the workers as fast as they can but up to the present the men are billeted all about, up and down the line.

“About two hundred yards from this place there’s an old footpath, leading from the station and the main road up to a small hamlet on the hillside. Part of the way this path goes by a pretty large wood, most of it thick undergrowth. I should think there must be twenty acres of wood, more or less. As it happens, I used this path once long ago; and I can tell you it’s a black place of nights.

“A man had to go this way one night. He got along all right till he came to the wood. And then he said his heart dropped out of his body. It was awful to hear the noises in that wood. Thousands of men were in it, he swears that. It was full of rustling, and pattering of feet trying to go dainty, and the crack of dead boughs lying on the ground as some one trod on them, and swishing of the grass, and some sort of chattering speech going on, that sounded, so he said, as if the dead sat in their bones and talked! He ran for his life, anyhow; across fields, over hedges, through brooks. He must have run, by his tale, ten miles out of his way before he got home to his wife, and beat at the door, and broke in, and bolted it behind him.”.

“There is something rather alarming about any wood at night,” said Dr. Lewis.

Merritt shrugged his shoulders.

“People say that the Germans have landed, and that they are hiding in underground places all over the country.”

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:39